Although the call-up of additional military personnel has convinced Americans that Washington is seriously preparing for war if Iraqi forces do not withdraw peacefully from Kuwait, it is unclear that Saddam Hussein shares the same perception or is able to interpret our political debates. The Iraqi leader continues to maintain his public stance that Kuwaiti independence and sovereignty came to an end with Baghdad's invasion.

We know, however, that Saddam is capable of changing direction after an error. He badly miscalculated the strength and resiliency of the Iranian revolution in 1980, when he invaded that country, and three years later he called for a cease-fire. Confronted by a formidable U.N. coalition rather than a pro forma slap on the wrist after he invaded Kuwait in August, Saddam was quick to minimize antagonisms on his eastern flank by agreeing that Iran should have sovereignty up to the median line of the Shatt al Arab.

Sudden reversals like those, however, could be justified by Saddam as being in the Iraqi national interest. In the current crisis, Washington is unlikely to get Saddam to blink until he is convinced, first, that the United States is seriously ready to use force and, second, that withdrawal will better serve the interests of his regime than will staying put and fighting.

The "war now or war later" argument used by those who urge we strike militarily at Iraq because there is no other way to eliminate the Iraqi threat only hardens positions on either side of the line and is likely to drive Saddam farther into the trenches. Instead, if Saddam does decide to withdraw peacefully, why not implement a package of guarantees to contain Iraq's military machine? The following program might accomplish the coalition's goals without the major casualties and collateral damage that would necessarily accompany any military action:

Keep a worldwide arms embargo on Iraq. In particular, there should be firm commitments by the French, Chinese and Soviets, as Iraq's traditional suppliers, to refrain from all arms sales to Iraq for a period of at least five years after Iraqi withdrawal. The time frame could be longer if arms control experts were so to recommend. In five years, Iraq's present inventory, lacking any replenishment, should be seriously degraded.

Maintain an oil embargo on Iraq to give the coalition leverage to force a "build-down" and effective international inspection of Iraq's arsenal. This would admittedly be a difficult proposition for the coalition to agree on, but as long as oil supply continues to meet demand, the costs of the embargo to the world community should at least be bearable. Coalition members fearful about the prospect of a hot war in the Gulf should realize that some such extraordinary measure will be required to forestall conflict. We should anticipate, as we press for continuation of the embargo, that the Arab states, long concerned about Israeli intentions, will in turn urge comparable pressures on Israel.

Develop a new regional security structure, featuring Gulf Cooperation Council forces at its core, and including Egypt and those Arab states that have already taken a stand against the Iraqi invasion. This force would be stationed in Saudi Arabia under Saudi command. In Kuwait, a U.N. peacekeeping force could serve as a tripwire to discourage adventurism.

Recognize the near impossibility of securing the support of the American public or the Saudi government for a continued American deployment on the current scale. With this in mind the United States should:

Secure Saudi approval of a major prepositioning of U.S. equipment in Saudi Arabia. This would shorten American reaction time in the event of a future attack by Iraq. A small ground and/or air presence in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates also should be continued in company with Arab units from those countries that have contributed forces to the present deployment.

Two major regional initiatives would greatly improve the overall political climate in the Middle East. The first would be to:

Revive the Arab-Israeli peace process with broad participation rather than the limited Israeli-Palestinian dialogue attempted through 1989 until the collapse of the Israeli government coalition in March. Consider a framework such as the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe in which those nations met to adopt guidelines for several different "baskets" of issues. The agenda need not slavishly imitate that of the CSCE, but should feature the same flexibility of procedure that recognized that unresolved problems, although they may affect the same people and nations, are not all of equal complexity and therefore cannot be expected to be solved simultaneously.

The other major initiative, perhaps to be subsumed in the first, is:

Arms control. In a familiar and valid approach to crisis management, Washington has recently decided to provide major new arms packages to the Saudis and the Israelis. Yet boosting arms sales to our Middle Eastern allies only prolongs one of the world's most dangerous arms races.

Arms control talks admittedly will take years to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and reduce conventional arms inventories, despite the many lessons we have learned from the U.S.-Soviet talks. Negotiations will have to draw in all states that possess weapons of mass destruction, in a region where the language and lore of arms control remain strikingly unfamiliar to all parties concerned. Israeli hesitance to enter such talks might be overcome by the fact that arms control talks would supplement the severely constricted agenda of state-to-state talks in the region, one that would for a change not involve the questions of borders. Arms reductions need not mean that countries sacrifice their comparative advantages as they "build down." And the leadership of all countries in the region must recognize that any future Arab-Israeli conflict will be far costlier to the civilian populations than were those of '67 or '73.

I am well aware of U.S. and Israeli resistance to the concept of an international conference. But if we seriously want to foster a new world order, to allay lingering Soviet fears that our interest in the Middle East region is really aimed at establishment of a military outpost and, above all, to give hope to the peoples of the region that their many problems will all get attention, then the time may have come to design a much broader diplomacy than we have yet attempted.

The writer, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs from 1983 to 1989.